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Five things to know about the Poland-Belarus migrant crisis

Moscow - An influx of migrants on the border between Poland and Belarus -- the EU's eastern frontier -- has led to an escalating crisis, with concerns growing in Europe.

Here are five things to know about the stand-off.

 

- What is the situation on the ground? -

 

A few thousand migrants who want to access the EU are stuck along the forested border between the two countries, with around 2,000 of them at a makeshift camp facing the Polish village of Kuznica.

With women and young children among them, they are stuck at the border in harsh conditions as temperatures dip below zero at night with winter approaching.

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According to Polish authorities, groups of migrants made several attempts to force their way through the border on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Videos published by the Polish side showed some migrants using tree branches as they tried to tear down a barbed-wire fence, which the Polish army set up along the border.

At least ten people have died in the stand-off in recent weeks, according to Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily. Seven of those died on the Polish side of the border, it said.

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- Where are the migrants coming from? -

 

Most of the migrants making their way to the EU's eastern border are fleeing conflicts or poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

A large number of them are Kurds from northern Iraq. Over the last three months, 1,600 people have reached Belarus on a tourist visa from Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the Kurdistan Refugee Association.

Some come from war-torn Syria, where a brutal civil war erupted ten years ago.

A Polish woman living near the border told AFP that she also saw migrants from Yemen, Ivory Coast and even Cuba.

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- Why is the EU accusing Belarus? -

 

Brussels is accusing the regime of Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the migration crisis as a response to Western sanctions over his brutal crackdown on the opposition last year.

Lukashenko -- who has ruled Belarus since 1994 -- denies these claims.

But at the end of May, he warned the EU that Minsk would not stop "drugs and migrants" headed for Europe.

Warsaw accuses Minsk of handing transit visas to nationals of several countries in order to attract migrants, as well as organising their transport to the border and even providing them with tools to cut fences.

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Lukashenko is accused of scaring Europe with a massive influx of migrants -- evoking memories of a 2015 crisis when several hundred thousand people had reached Greece from neighbouring Turkey.

In early 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also played on this fear by letting tens of thousands of migrants pass to the Greek border.

 

- How is Poland reacting? -

 

Warsaw has accused Minsk of "state terrorism", and beefed up security on its border by building a fence along it and deploying some 15,000 soldiers.

Poland has also imposed a state of emergency in the border area and authorised its security forces to push migrants back into Belarus.

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It has faced international and domestic criticism over its treatment of the migrants and for not allowing the media into the emergency zone.

Relations between Poland's nationalist government and Brussels are tense, with the EU concerned by a controversial judicial reform, worsening press freedom and women's rights issues.

European Council President Charles Michel travelled to Warsaw on Wednesday to meet with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

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- What is Russia's role? -

 

While Poland has accused Russia -- Belarus's main ally -- of being behind the crisis, Moscow has stayed relatively quiet until now.

Aware of Moscow's influence over Minsk, the EU and Germany on Wednesday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene and help end the crisis.

Weakened by Western sanctions, Lukashenko's regime is heavily dependent on Russia's financial, political and military help.

But Putin suggested the EU should engage in "direct contacts" with Minsk on the issue.